I am really sick of being commanded to like things by the Nerd Hivemind

I can already see that Guardians of the Galaxy is going to go, for me, the same route as Pacific Rim:

World: Hype hype hype hype hype.
Me: …What is everyone so excited about? I don’t see what’s particularly special about this.
*movie actually comes out, I see it*
World: OMG THAT WAS THE GREATEST THING EVAR!!!
Me: Eh, that was okay, not great.
Everyone I say that to: How dare you? Anyone who considers this less than the absolute pinnacle of human achievement is a horrible person!
Me: *sighs, enumerates the flaws I saw in it*
Them: But raccoon with a machinegun/giant robot punching kaiju!
Me: …yes, and? I’ve been an anime fan for twenty years, neither of those even registers on the novelty-meter.
Them: [accusations regarding my character, statements that I “hate fun,” etc.]

Repeat for several months, during which “okay, not great” steadily devolves into outright hatred.

Admittedly, Guardians of the Galaxy was WAY more entertaining than Pacific Rim, but it was still ultimately just another disposable popcorn movie that should have been about the female lead and instead shoehorned in a vastly less interesting Whitey McManpain to be the main character.

(No but seriously everything wrong with Guardians of the Galaxy would be fixed if Gamora were the main character and her journey the main focus, and Starlord reduced to comic-relief sidekick.)

Captain America: The Winter Soldier Spoiler-Filled Review

Apologies for lateness.

Spoilers below the cut!

Captain America, within the Marvel universe, is a living relic of World War II. He signifies that war’s position within American pop-cultural history as “the good war,” the war in which the enemy was clearly evil and Manichaean logic can therefore declare the U.S. good. 
By contrast, the name of his opposite number in this movie, the “Winter Soldier,” clearly refers to the Winter Soldier Investigation of 1971, in which the organization Veterans Against the Vietnam War sought to expose American war crimes in Vietnam, and to demonstrate that these were not isolated incidents, but a direct consequence of military policy. 
In its title alone, then, Captain America: The Winter Soldier represents a transition from a world in which fighting “the bad guys” makes you good to one where how and why you fight matters as much as who you fight against, and it takes more than a team affiliation to be one of the good guys. 
Captain America, of course, is always going to end up one of the good guys. He is the moral center of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (as he often is in the comics as well); where Iron Man, Hulk, and Thor struggle with impulses to self-indulgence or violent temper, and Black Widow has a checkered past and a ruthless streak a mile wide, Captain Anerica’s only flaw is a lack of information. Sometimes he’s lost due to missing most of the 20th Century; other times it’s because he doesn’t know who to trust or all the details of what’s going on–but given the information, we can presume that anything he does will be treated by the film as morally right. 
Case in point: Hydra’s plan is to kill millions to save billions. This makes them villains. Cap’s team kill thousands to save those millions; this makes them heroes. Of course the two are not equivalent; Hydra is seeking to kill millions, mostly civilians, in order to establish an authoritarian rule by fear. Captain America and the Shield loyalists kill thousands, mostly Hydra operatives, to maintain some semblance of freedom. But that’s the point; the difference between good and evil is not, as in the theme park version of World War II from which Captain America hails, a matter of killing members of the opposing team; what matters is why and how and when. Killing someone because an algorithm suggests they might someday upset the status quo of orderly society is evil; killing someone because it’s the only way to stop them from doing far greater evil is, broadly speaking within this movie’s moral universe, good. 
The film’s criticism of the Manichaean worldview is vital, because that worldview underlies the post-9/11 security-and-surveillance culture which is the film’s main target. Much has been made by critics of this heavy-handed, but bold and extremely welcome attack on the way in which terrorism and the fear of terrorism has been used as an excuse by multiple world powers to undermine the civil liberties, civil rights, and privacy of their own citizens.
In this sense, the film builds on Iron Man 3, in which the alien attack on New York in The Avengers is framed as equivalent to 9/11, with people referring to it obliquely as “New York” and Tony Stark being told he needs to move past it and get on with his life. In Winter Soldier, the comparison becomes blatant; the attack on New York is explicitly stated to be the impetus for Shield stepping up its surveillance efforts and taking a more “proactive” (read: authoritarian) role.

Interestingly, there seems to have been little attention paid to perhaps the most interesting use of 9/11 imagery in the film, namely the collision of an aircraft with the tallest building in the city, destroying both. In many ways this is an inversion of the normal depiction of 9/11, in which both the airplane and the building are filled with innocents, but evil people caused the plane to crash into the building. By contrast, the Helicarrier is part of Shield’s plot to control the world, which in turn is a front for Hydra’s plot to control the world, while the Triskelion is equally a center of Shield and Hydra corruption. Notably, the Triskelion is literally above the law–the view from the glass-walled elevator positions it directly across Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway from the Watergate Hotel, which is to say within D.C. city limits, and at 41 floors it is therefore in violation of federal law limiting the height of buildings in D.C., specifically the Height of Buildings Act of 1910. Debatably, the sub-orbital position of the Helicarriers also puts them literally above the law in the sense of being outside any nation’s airspace; however, they never actually reach that height.

Examine more closely, however, and the imagery isn’t quite so clearly a reversal so much as it is a reclaiming. To understand this, consider the hydra. In the movie, the significance of the hydra is in the organization’s motto: “destroy one head, and two grow in its place.” In regards to the Hydra organization itself, the hydra represents the futility of violence as a long-term solution to terrorism; even where a military response succeeds in stamping out a terrorist organization, it breeds the conditions of poverty, resentment, and powerlessness in which terrorist organizations grow. But there is one enormous difference between Hydra and real-world terrorism: Hydra is a single organization that is behind everything.

It is thus very easy to give Hydra, and by extension the film, a paranoid reading. Already fan speculation is rampant on whether the villains of the previous Iron Man films might have been Hydra members or splinter groups. The problem with this reading is that the film is clearly concerned very much with the real-world issues of government secrecy, surveillance, and authoritarianism, and a too-literal paranoid reading of Hydra leads to “9/11 was an inside job”-style conspiracy theorizing.

More interesting is to consider the other major feature of a hydra: that it is multiple independent entities which, deep under the water, connect in a single body. Shield does not know that it is a branch of Hydra; it believes itself to be an independent creature. This is key, because in real life, al-Qaeda and the NSA do not believe that they are part of the same phenomenon, and the suggestion that they are fundamentally connected, that they need one another to survive, is generally seen as absurd.

But both are organizations that thrive on fear. Terrorist organizations are Hydra in its overt mode, killing people and spreading panic and destruction. The security sector is Hydra in its subtle mode, watching, collecting data, silently and without legal or moral restraint taking out key individuals, all of it justified under the mantra of “protecting” people. Without overt Hydra, subtle Hydra has no justification for its surveillance and attacks; without subtle Hydra and the establishment it represents, overt Hydra has no autocratic powers to target. The difference between the movie and real life is that Hydra knows it is a single beast, and so coordinates the fighting between its heads in a grand show designed to keep the populace docile. In real life, the heads of the beast are fighting in earnest, and there is no conspiracy to dupe into people joining terrorist cells or voting in favor of more “security”. That’s what makes conspiracies so popular; it’s more comforting to imagine that someone is deliberately manipulating the system than to acknowledge that there are problems inherent in the system itself.

Ultimately, the movie rejects the conspiracy theory model and acknowledges that the system is the problem. Black Widow emerges as the real hero of the movie, striking the most important blow out of all the characters by exposing both Shield and Hydra–both the security sector and the terrorists–to the light, destroying secrecy and thereby breaking the power of fear. That this is the most heroic act in the movie is made clear by two factors, first that it is framed as a major personal sacrifice on Black Widow’s part, and second that she is the single character who changes the most over the course of the film.

Of course the ending of the movie shows that the system still endures. A blow has been struck against it, certainly, but it is not yet destroyed; the CIA still exists, as does at least one Hydra cell. The threat remains; cut off one head and two grow in its place. But lives were saved, and for now at least, those who put themselves above the law have been brought crashing down to Earth.

I have little doubt that the next several Marvel movies will fail utterly to pick up this particular ball. It’s simply not an appropriate topic for a silly CGI-fest space romp or a big crossover superhero “epic.” But it would fit well with a Black Widow movie, and Winter Soldier‘s writers and directors are already confirmed for Captain America 3, so there is hope that a couple of years down the line we will see a bit more of this kind of revolutionary impulse and anger.

Hopefully by then a little will have spread out into the real world. Don’t hold your breath.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier: Spoiler-Free Review

I saw Captain America: The Winter Soldier  last night. Here’s what I can say without spoiling it: All that relatively subtle poking of the post-9/11 security-theater world in Iron Man 3? “You have to forget about New York” and all that?

Yeah, they’re not being remotely subtle anymore, and it’s glorious. There’s even a largely successful attempt to reclaim iconic 9/11 imagery as a symbol of resistance to the surveillance state. I’ll talk more tomorrow when I get spoilery. As any good Captain America story should be, this is about the ghost of our grandparents looking at our world, and finding it insufficiently progressive.

Also cool action sequences, an update of one of the last Marvel heroes I was expecting to see in a movie, and a mostly predictable but still entertaining conspiracy-thriller plot. (Oddly, the thing I was surprised by was played as being not particularly revelatory, while I saw the Big Twist coming miles away.)

None of the warmth of the first Captain America, and that’s most definitely intentional. This is an angry movie, and rightly so. One of the best entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to date.

I saw Muppets Most Wanted as well. Amusing, also lacked the warmth of the previous movie, and suffered terribly for it. Probably worth a rent if you like the Muppets (which I very much do, rather predictably), but not worth the cost of a movie ticket.

I haven’t let my inner science nerd out to play in a while…

Rewatched several of the Marvel movies yesterday (Thor, Captain America, and The Avengers, and as of writing I’m considering whether to watch an Iron Man, though that will be difficult seeing as Netflix doesn’t have them), because it’ll be a little while before I can go see Thor 2. I have to say, at first I thought the Tesseract was just a bit of technobabble, throwing out a science-y sounding word, but the more I think about it, the more it works for me.

The key is, there are a couple of mentions of “dark energy” in The Avengers in relation to the Tesseract. Like a tesseract, dark energy is a real scientific term; it refers to a hypothetical form of energy that is causing the observed expansion of the universe (hence “dark”–we can deduce its existence from observing its effects, but have yet to detect it or confirm its source). Dark energy appears to permeate all of space and act on space itself, causing it to expand. It is very weak, which is why it hasn’t completely shredded the universe; even as space expands, gravity is strong enough to hold structures like galaxies, stars, and planets together, let alone the much stronger electromagnetic and nuclear forces holding together smaller structures such as atomic nuclei, molecules, and people. Despite this weakness, because there is just so much space, dark energy ends up being the majority of all energy in the universe.

Which brings us to the Tesseract, which appears to draw on dark energy to generate power. Of course, the amount of dark energy in a region of space as small as that cube wouldn’t be enough to run an EZ Bake Oven, let alone power a Nazi super-science army, but the name gives a clue to how it could work.

In real life, a tesseract is a four-dimensional cubic prism; that is, it has the same relationship to a cube as a cube has to a square. If you do the math, you’ll find that it has a total “surface volume” eight times that of a single cubical “face,” but still, eight times that tiny cube is only slightly less tiny. However, thanks to Madeleine L’Engle’s classic children’s science fiction novel A Wrinkle in Time, in science fiction “tesseract” has a second meaning: a four-dimensional fold in space that connects two points that are very distant three-dimensionally. Given what the tesseract does when Red Skull activates it at the end of Captain America, and that it enables the opening of a gate for the Chitauri to invade Earth in The Avengers, it seems pretty likely that this is the definition meant.

At which point it makes total sense that it is able to tap vast amounts of dark energy. We have no idea how much space it’s capable of folding up, but given that the Chitauri expect to conquer the universe, we can assume it’s a lot. Now it can access the dark energy of vast swaths of interstellar space, folding them up so that they can all be accessed through that one little cube.

Which leads to another fun thought: what if someone mass-produced them? As it stands, there is enough dark energy in the universe to keep it expanding forever. If the “quintessence” theory of dark energy is correct, then the amount of dark energy in the universe is actually increasing over time; eventually there will be nothing else, and space will shred itself completely. Using up the dark energy of interstellar space seems like a good idea, to keep the universe from flying apart. On the other hand, use up too much, and you eventually hit a point where there’s more gravity than dark energy, and the universe starts to collapse in on itself. You could set a pretty interesting story in a universe where that’s starting to happen, and people are faced with choosing between giving up their main energy source or dooming the universe–but obvious as the answer is, it isn’t easy, because it’s a very slow doom that none living will see.

Too on the nose, perhaps?